1 : a mark on an instrument or vessel indicating degrees or quantity; also : these marks
2a : the award or acceptance of an academic degree or diploma b : commencement
3 : arrangement in degrees or ranks
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay
– Bob Dylan
My brother recently forwarded to me the text of Dame Helen Mirren’s commencement speech at Louisiana State University. I value knowledge more now than when I was a younger man. My biggest concerns then were much more, shall we say, hedonistic in nature. I am not condemning completely the notion of hedonism. It can provide another type of education. I regret not an iota of my journey through its peaks and valleys of pleasure (and pain-yes it is not devoid of this aspect) although I may have over spent a bit of that time. Horace Porter, an aide to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and a Medal of Honor winner once said “Be moderate in everything, including moderation”. I subscribed fully to that sage advice, even if I was not yet aware of the saying or Horace Porter. The Buddhists teach that life is a search for happiness and that journey begins with an understanding of our suffering. If this is true (and I see no reason to disagree) then each step on the journey is meaningful. Growing up is the process of growing into ourselves before the inevitable and ironically simultaneous process of growing old. Staving off the latter is largely dependent on our state of mind. Indeed, if one plays their cards and their stars right one can foster their youth even in advanced age. Taking a gander at Dame Helen Mirren and reading her remarks, I believe she may have been the youngest person at LSU that day.
Tis the season for graduations judging by all the gowns I see fluttering in the wind as their associated caps plot their escapes in anticipation of the next meaningful gust. I recently worked the graduation event of a very major university in my fair city, in my sometime position as “event staff”. I was impressed by some of the speeches, one in particular which stressed the need for society to take more seriously the challenges of education in an age and under an administration which eschews the values of scholastic knowledge while promoting corporate profit and theocracy.
I have never been to an obedience school graduation. I imagine it could be either the most fun or concurrently the saddest of spectacles. I guess that would depend largely not on the mutt but the persona of the pet’s guardian. Cats are the original dropouts. They can’t be taught anything. The phrase ‘like herding cats” comes to mind. Like most dropouts they have little use for anyone. They will let you rub them to the point of purring, but only when they want it. They only demand that you feed them and provide a place for them to poop, neither skill requires training. Leave the food and the box out and they are good to go. Dogs however often require “house training” at least city dogs that do not have the luxury of some kind of yard where they can allow their noses to figure it out for themselves. Still for all their sloppiness and need for attention I prefer them. Nothing against cats, I do like them, but I identify more with dogs. I am after all, a male.
I was a kindergarten dropout so I was not present at that particular graduation. I did not become a preschooler without a cause nor did I take to lurking in the schoolyard in pursuit of other kids chocolate milk. I never fully explained to my mother why I couldn’t return but I can now confess, it was all because of a woman. Her name was Alisha and my love was unrequited, my romantic advances spurned. She was more interested in coloring books than tossing a ball around with me. My mother was perplexed but didn’t push it and to this day I am thankful. I have never been good at heartbreak.
I completed my entire eight year enlistment and participated fully in my elementary school graduation. This day was notable as it also coincided with my early initiation into the precarious world of pitiful drunkenness and horrible hangovers. The parents of a friend of mine threw a ‘party’ of sorts for him in the back room of a local pub and as it was the rite of passage in those days for young west side Irish American boys, we were allowed, more like encouraged, to “enjoy” ourselves. We “enjoyed” ourselves perhaps a little too much. To be fair and not wishing to paint the responsible adults of the time too negatively, they only meant that we should enjoy maybe the hint of a beer. Well we could take a hint. Fourteen year old boys set loose in an environment reeking of spirits can get very spiritual. Can I have an Hallelujah?!! Don’t blame the bartenders (whose ranks I would someday join) fourteen year old boys can be very creative. Let’s leave it at that. My friend’s mother took us both back to their apartment and sensing I would not make it home in one piece, insisted that I stay over. In the middle of the night I awoke briefly only to see my friend moaning and lifting his pillow so he could vomit wholeheartedly onto his mattress. When he was finished he simply dropped the pillow back on top of the ocean of illness that had spilled out of him and plunged back into a deep slumber. I was far enough away and too paralyzed myself to utter a peep. But the moment will forever burn brightly in my memory.
The age of alcohol majority in New York State was 18 in the times of my high school graduation. Most of us had been passing ourselves off as “legal” at various local taverns since we were 16 so we were already quite jaded in regards to what would commonly be a bench mark of adulthood for most of our peers in other jurisdictions. Besides, I now had a very “nice” girlfriend who had traversed all the way from the nether regions of Woodside, Queens for this affair. My mother’s plan was to go to a very “nice” restaurant and have a very “nice” dinner. My friends were invited over to our apartment afterwards and while there was alcohol, there was also an air of civility to the proceedings now as opposed to the indoctrination four years earlier. Most of my friends were potheads by this time anyway and drinking was almost beside the point. It was understood that my mother would never tolerate doing drugs in our abode so most of them toked up before they arrived. My mother was impressed at how “happy” they all appeared to be.
My graduation from college was akin in my mind to a parole proceeding. Recidivism was not a concern however; I seriously doubt my re-entry would have been permitted under any imaginable circumstances. For too long the ideas of the powers that be at my college and myself on what constituted higher education were not in alignment. I did however complete the minimum requirements (in the most minimum manner possible) and graduated with the lowest GPA of any student to actually graduate from my institution. Yes, there were folks who had lower GPAs but they never actually graduated. When the president of the college handed me my walking papers on that sunny June day, I did the honorable thing and walked away.
A couple of years ago I was invited to attend the graduation of a young lady who had adopted me as her “New York dad.” How an honors graduate with a serious degree from a serious university would seriously consider even for a moment conferring such an honorable designation on such a sloucher as myself (I am from a different generation and likely don’t qualify as a “slacker”) is beyond me. She is more knowledgeable, more capable, far less cynical and certainly wiser than I am. But, whatever wisdom I may have gained from simply aging impels me not to protest this designation. I am incredibly proud of her. In her metamorphosis from student to doughnut shop counter girl and on to social worker she has done wonders to help provide a safer and healthier environment for those among us who can’t take that kind of thing for granted in the manner that too many others do. She has a heart as wide as the Grand Canyon, the passion of ten Christs (I can almost hear the accusations of blasphemy already-relax it is only a play on words regarding a novel and movie-look it up!) and the kind of brain the Scarecrow could only wish for. She and this new class of young and old graduates (yes- Octo and Septua- generians are among them) will change the world. If only the rest of us stubborn old farts stand to the side and let them. The Octo and Septua – generian graduates are honorably excused from the stubborn old fart designation…for obvious reasons.
As I read over Dame Helen’s speech I realize that “graduation” never ends for those who keep their eyes, ears, noses, hearts and minds wide open. Each of us has the capacity to graduate always into a better degree of ourselves with any luck and a tiny amount of perseverance. So, GO FORTH GRADUATES. And to all those future alumni of somewhere and someplace no matter your gender or species, take what you have learned in and out of your classrooms and put it to good use. Fido stop peeing the rug and find wondrous things to sniff outdoors, (the cat is on its own as they always are) color with the cute girl in kindergarten, avoid hard liquor right out of grade school, have a few drinks when you exit high school but be civilized and safe about it, exercise your mind in college, not just your excesses but exercise them as well…from time to time. Remember always Horace Porter’s advice on moderation. Remember also to thank whoever you must thank, for we accomplish nothing in any real sense, alone. Hold on to those caps it’s going to be windy out there. Now get out of here and get on with it. Congratulations!
I have included a link to the Dame’s speech.